pipe dreams: will ohio be the next state to legalize medical marijuana

Jason Pardee wasn’t high when a new driver tee-boned him on a seven lane Florida highway, yet after the accident, marijuana is the only thing that relieves his pain. 
Pardee was unconscious for two weeks following the accident. When he awoke, his life was nothing but pain. Now living in California, the Amherst, Ohio, native legally grows and consumes cannabis to manage his pain.
“My doctors told me I couldn’t smoke, but narcotics made my life a nightmare,” says Pardee, who was prescribed opiates that resulted in side effects like nausea, vomiting and urinary retention. The latter landed him back in the hospital with a catheter. “The pain was excruciating and never ending. It never let me go.”
Today, Pardee lives high -- no pun intended -- in the San Bernardino Mountains, where he grows weed under California’s medical marijuana laws for his own use and to sell to local cooperatives. He’s been able to make a living at it, albeit a meager one. His long-term goal is to cultivate special strains that alleviate the pain of cancer patients.
That is, unless medical marijuana becomes legal in Ohio. “If my home state were legal, then I could potentially take my skills, go home, start a business there and not be a criminal," he says. "I’d probably make more in the end because it’s a cheaper place to live.”
There’s no telling how many Ohioans there are like Jason, but if the state’s marijuana legalization advocates have their way, there might soon be many more of them. The Ohio Rights Group (ORG) is collecting signatures to place a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot in the November 2014 election, allowing the state’s voters to decide whether or not medical marijuana and growing hemp should be allowed. 
Although a recent poll of 1,000 Ohioans conducted for the Columbus Dispatch showed that residents oppose making pot fully legal by a 21 point margin, the poll also showed that legalizing medical marijuana was widely favored by a whopping 63 to 37 percent. Presently, eighteen states plus Washington D.C. allow medical marijuana (New Hampshire and Illinois appear likely to join the list soon), a dramatic turnaround from the "Just Say No" 1980s.
Hemp is a non-drug variety of cannabis that is grown legally around the world but not in the U.S. Hemp can be used to make rope, canvas, paper, clothing and other materials. Advocates believe that making hemp legal could help resuscitate Ohio’s agricultural economy. However, federal law currently prohibits growing of hemp on any level.  
With advocates lining up on both sides of the fight, legalization is shaping up to be a hot topic in 2014. As the political winds shift on this issue, Ohio increasingly is seen as a battleground state. As the pundits like to say every four years, Ohio is a bellwether for the rest of the country. "As Ohio goes…" Well, you know the rest.
With medical marijuana becoming more mainstream each year, politicians who favor legalizing it say the moment might be ripe for Ohio to join the movement.  
“I watched both my parents die on pain medication, and if they asked me for additional pain medications, whether it was a shot of whiskey or a joint, I would’ve come to their aid if I could have,” says Ohio Representative Bob Hagan, a Youngstown Democrat who’s plotting a run against Senator Rob Portman in the November 2014 election.
Hagan has introduced two bills to the 130th Ohio General Assembly -- one would fully legalize medical marijuana, while the other would decriminalize possession of pot for adults over 21. The Republican-dominated legislature has expressed no interest in considering either bill, of course, and it seems likely that both will die a quiet death.
The Ohio Rights Group might have a better shot at passage by putting the issue before voters in 2014. To do so, the group must collect 385,000 signatures, an effort that likely will cost between $1 and $2 million before the campaign even starts. The group says it now has 25 chapters around the state.
“Our amendment is of, by and for the people,” says John Pardee, President of the Ohio Rights Group, who became involved in the issue in the wake of his son’s car accident. “Right now, we’re losing young people because the state treats them like criminals. We’re also passing up millions of dollars in tax revenue and business growth.”
According to a study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, marijuana legalization could result in as much as $14 billion in tax savings and additional revenue across the nation. Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington D.C. says medical marijuana could provide a boost to struggling cities like Cleveland by providing new sources of tax revenue and fresh opportunities to create businesses.
In California alone, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, it is a $14 billion industry that generates upwards of $100 million in tax revenues for the state.
Not so fast, say opponents of the measure. Kelly Lazar, Program Director of Community Awareness and Prevention Association (CAPA), an anti-drug initiative in the Brecksville-Broadview Heights schools, says marijuana has proven negative health effects. A study in New Zealand that went on for decades found that adolescents who used pot at least four times per week lost an average of eight IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38.
“When perception of harm goes down with any substance, then use goes up,” says Lazar, citing a survey of local ninth graders showing that 61 percent believe marijuana is dangerous, down from 78 percent one year before. “We’re already struggling to graduate kids in this state. We’re concerned about its effects on education.”
While there are some studies showing that regular, prolonged marijuana use can be harmful, the science is said to be inconclusive. That’s largely because the Drug Enforcement Administration has always refused to allow U.S. universities to study it. Now that pot is legal in Colorado and Washington, that research might be forthcoming.
Regardless how one personally feels about the issue, it’s widely acknowledged that medical marijuana is an effective tool in treating a number of ailments. In fact, in a recent poll that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, 76 percent of doctors polled were in favor of using marijuana for medicinal purposes.
"The evidence is overwhelming that marijuana can relieve certain types of pain, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms caused by such illnesses as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS -- or by the harsh drugs sometimes used to treat them," former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, MD, was quoted as saying in the Providence Journal. "And it can do so with remarkable safety. Indeed, marijuana is less toxic than many of the drugs that physicians prescribe every day."
Privately, insiders say that 2016 might be a more likely target for marijuana legalization in Ohio. It’s more difficult to get an issue on the ballot in a non-presidential election year, and a wider array of political donors as well as voters will be fully engaged in 2016. Despite this, Ohio Rights Groups supporters have set their sights on next year.
“The country is reaching a tipping point, and we want Ohio to be the tipping point,” says Mary Jane Borden, a Columbus resident who is the Secretary of the Ohio Rights Group.

It can’t come soon enough for Jason Pardee, who says that he’s one of a growing number of “marijuana refugees” moving out of states like Ohio to grow and consume pot legally.      
“I didn’t start out as someone who had medical knowledge of marijuana, although I did appreciate it,” says Pardee, an artist who graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art. “Now, I’m skateboarding, long boarding and hiking in the mountains again. Medical marijuana is the biggest aspect of my life. It’s given me purpose and fulfillment.”

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.